Kat Cole (president of Cinnabon) in “The Corner Office”

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Kat Cole, president Coleof Cinnabon. By asking more questions when business is going smoothly, an executive ensures that “people don’t feel beat up for failing.” But, she adds, “they should feel very concerned if they don’t understand why they’re successful.”

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Photo credit: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

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Were you in leadership roles when you were young?

My mom left our father when I was 9. I have two younger sisters, so from a very young age I had a leadership role at home. My mom would leave a list, and when the girls would get a little bit out of line, I would be the father figure, and when we were having fun, I would be the sister. Then, as I moved through school, I was always in leadership roles, like class president.

Tell me more about your mother.

She graduated high school and was a secretary for most of the time we were growing up. When she divorced our father, she had to pick up other jobs. For three years, she fed us on a food budget of, at the time, $10 a week. We didn’t grow up thinking, “Oh my gosh, we’re poor,” because we had a house. So we always felt that we were pretty lucky. And her mantra for us was: “I want you to be able to take care of yourself. You need to be able to take care of yourself.” It was all about being independent.

Did she have other favorite expressions?

As I started working and moving up quickly, my mom started saying, “Don’t ever forget where you came from, but don’t you dare let it define you.” Even today, she writes that on my birthday card. For me, the personal message is about staying grounded and never turning your back on people.

But there’s a business message for me, too, around innovation and evolution: Don’t forget where you came from, but don’t be stuck there. I’ll use those words sometimes when I’m talking to franchise groups, investors and employees.

What about early leadership lessons?

I started working at Hooters when I was 17 and got leadership roles early on. At 19, I was asked to go to Australia to help open the first Hooters there. I had never been on a plane before. But I said yes, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. I did many openings after that, and every time it was a different team and a different culture, and I had to earn their trust within hours and rally them around a common goal.

How did you do that?

I would get them coffee and doughnuts in the morning, and I would start out by talking about why we’re here and asking questions: “What do you think this is going to be like? What do you think I should know?” And I really wanted to know what I should know. Then, throughout the day, I would pull people aside and say: “How’s it going? What do you think we could do differently?”

I did that because I was inexperienced and I really needed their eyeballs and brains, but I also wanted them to have a say. I knew I didn’t know everything.

Other lessons you’ve learned?

I’ve learned to question success a lot more than failure. I’ll ask more questions when sales are up than I do when they’re down. I ask more questions when things seem to be moving smoothly, because I’m thinking: “There’s got to be something I don’t know. There’s always something.” This approach means that people don’t feel beat up for failing, but they should feel very concerned if they don’t understand why they’re successful. I made mistakes over the years that taught me to ask those questions.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.comthat he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here.

His more recent book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was also also published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

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